Hifiman Express: HM-101

Screen capture from the OSX’s Audio Midi Setup window.

 

Volume Control

The HM-101 comes with two fixed level outputs. The Line-level output for feeding a separate headphone amplifier, and a Headphone output for direct use with headphones. There is no volume control knob on the HM-101 and so volume is controlled from the computer. While there may be debates to this method, I find that in real-world usage, at least with my Macbook Air, controlling volume through the computer is far more convenient than with a volume knob. The Mac keyboard comes with dedicated keys on the keyboard for mute, volume up and down functions, and so your hand never have to leave the keyboard. If you find the volume of the next song to be too loud, you just hit the volume down key on the keyboard till you get the perfect loudness level.

A while ago Benchmark Audio wrote that the volume control on newer iTunes version (version 7 and up) may be used without any worries in introducing distortions into the sound. In this case I’m not using the iTunes’ volume control, but rather the OSX volume control, simply due to the convenience of having the dedicated keys, but even then I can’t really pick up any audible distortions or artifacts in the sound.

Of course the lack of a manual volume control knob may seem odd to some people, but I can assure you that there is nothing but benefits by having the volume controlled in the digital domain. Any distortions done in the ones and zeros are probably going to be less noticeable than the distortions caused by a mechanical potentiometer, and in fact I think this is one of the reason to why Hifiman was able to extract so much performance out of a simple PCM2702 chip. Another benefit of the digital volume control is that there is zero channel imbalance at any volume level. And by using both the iTunes and the OSX volume control, I can virtually have the volume control range set to any level I want.

Conclusion on the comparisons

In comparison to the recent products that I’ve reviewed, the Fiio E10 and the Ibasso D-Zero, given the prevalence of strong beats and bass in today’s music, I think most people would be happiest with the D-Zero as it’s just best in that area. The Fiio E10 was pretty good with bass and also mids. The HM-101 is the most limited of the three, where I find it to excel mostly in the mids. However it happens to be my favorite in terms of an analog-like sound reproduction and the most lifelike soundstage ambiance. So, if you happen to be a big fan of midrange and soundstage, you really should give the HM-101 a try.

End Words

I think the beauty in the HM-101 is in the simplicity of the set up, the volume control-less operation (done on the computer), and the superb soundstage performance. As I mentioned above on the paragraph talking about bass, moving to a separate amp (this time the E6 and the D-Zero) would give me better punch in the bass. But you also lose things like the transparency and the ambiance in the soundstage, and the sweet midrange body which tends to be a little flat on a separate external amp. So I do think that the HM-101 really works best as it is. After all it’s not intended to be an ultimate USB DAC/Amp solution, but more like a good quality USB DAC at an affordable price. You know, a USB DAC to keep in the office and enjoy music from without having to break the bank and build a very expensive set up around. And I think it succeeded in becoming such a product. Not only does it pass the “good quality” mark, but I happen to really enjoy its musical presentation.

 

hifiman_hm101_04  hifiman_hm101_02 hifiman_hm101_01

 

3.7/5 - (4 votes)

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70 Comments

  • Reply October 20, 2011

    Guest

    first ! love it mike!

    • Reply October 20, 2011

      Anonymous

      Thanks!

  • Reply October 20, 2011

    Syakir Zainol

    …and i will buy this for my office use.

  • Reply October 20, 2011

    Алексей YY

    is it really better than build-in laptop sound system?

    • Reply October 20, 2011

      Anonymous

      Yes! At least compared to the one on my Macbook Air. 

      • Reply October 20, 2011

        jendol

        I have the pleasure of listening to hm-101 through mike’s laptop, and yes, it is definitely better compared to macbook air soundcard sq

        • Reply October 21, 2011

          Anonymous

          I’m listening to Headphonia’s USB cable DAC and I think it’s pretty awesome. 

  • Reply October 20, 2011

    SoupSoup

    These things are getting smaller and cheaper by the minute!
    I guess the “true” competing product from the Fiio stable would be the D5.
    It would be interesting to see how the dac/amp compare.

    • Reply October 20, 2011

      Anonymous

      Yes we missed comparing it to the D5. Still have no idea how the D5 sounds. 

      • Reply October 21, 2011

        deanreed

        If there’s going to be a shootout, please include the fiio d3 as well.

        • Reply October 21, 2011

          clam

          Should sounds the same as the d5. The only difference between the two are the inputs I believe (USB vs optical)

          • Reply October 21, 2011

            Anonymous

            Yes since everyone is crying for a Fiio D3 and so I will DEFINITELY make it happen, guys. 🙂 

          • Reply October 22, 2011

            Donunus

            I doubt they sound the same as the d5 because I heard the d5 is thin sounding. The D3 sounds rich out of the optical out and even richer out of the coax. I was comparing the d3 with a full size pioneer Elite player

  • Reply October 20, 2011

    FiiO

    D5 is for mass consumer market, which support mic in for skype, msn, gaming , google talk. 

    Anyway, D5 is used cm108, which also a famous USD receiver+dac chip, used in nuforce icon mobile, and some other brand. and d5 also have a individual headphone amp so the output is quite strong, LOL. 

    • Reply October 20, 2011

      SoupSoup

      I guess you need to send a review sample of the D5 to Mike!
      It’s starting to be crowded in the sub-$100 portable (i.e. battery or USB powered) DAC/Amp market.
      It almost calls for a shootout of ultra-inexpensive audio improvement solutions.
      Mike, don’t you love it when your readers give you more work to do? LOL

      • Reply October 20, 2011

        Anonymous

        Bossy readers, I know. 😉 

  • Reply October 21, 2011

    Gold Fish

    I have this for 3 weeks. It is not really better than the on-board soundcard; it’s rather a different character. I don’t hate it, but there is nothing to write home about it.

    • Reply February 16, 2012

      Alfjr Ks

       I agree with you Gold Fish, i think it’s just make a different some character of music. if you have file FLAC and speaker out with great EQ 2.0 speaker set, probably you will say nothing different with onboard even with standard driver.

  • Reply October 21, 2011

    clam

    Of the three DACs you compared, which one would be most suited to classical? Just trying to run a pair of IEMs and ATH-ES7 so amping isn’t too big of a deal

    • Reply October 21, 2011

      Anonymous

      It would have to be this one, the HM-101. 

    • Reply October 24, 2011

      Calvin Lam

      Just received the HM-101 and listening to it now. The grain and noise is really loud through my UE SF5 Pro but not as noticeable through the Audio-Technica ES7. Mike was totally right about the soundstage, its pretty big considering the price of this little DAC. Actually makes the ES7 more enjoyable with classical than just straight through the headphone jack of my MBP. Good alternative to my full size rig on the go.

      Hoping that more burn-in will ease the noise issue (especially with IEMs)

  • Reply October 21, 2011

    Dan

    Hopefully, it is compliant with the new Google phone, Galaxy Nexus under Ice Cream Sandwich.

    • Reply October 21, 2011

      Anonymous

      Really, you can use this with a phone?

      • Reply October 22, 2011

        Dhani Nugraha

        Mike, if I’m not mistaken, the Android Ice Cream Sandwich has USB host capability, thus the ability to control run-of-the-mill USB devices. Think gamepads, USB sticks or external drives, DACs like the HM101… 😉

        • Reply October 23, 2011

          Erik Wijnands

          I have a Nook Color with CyanogenMod7’s custom ROM installed. It has USB Host, thus making driverless DACs work on  Android 2.3. In combination with apps like Poweramp or Player Pro you can have a great 7″ portable “audiophile” rig. 

          • Reply October 24, 2011

            Anonymous

            Sounds really nice, Erik.

  • Reply October 21, 2011

    Erik Wijnands

    Headstage DAC Cable review? 😀 I have the Headstage Arrow and am hoping the DAC Cable is awesome. That way I can hook the Cable and the Arrow to my Android Tablet and have an awesome portable rig! 🙂 

    • Reply October 22, 2011

      Anonymous

      Listening to the DAC cable right now and I think it has just the perfect treble sparkle to pair with the Arrow amp. 

  • Reply October 26, 2011

    Raúl Burgos

    Hello there! 

    Firstly, I have become a big fan of the site. I usually visit it a few times per day looking for updates 🙂
    I have a couple of questions: I am looking for a nice and inexpensive dac+amp for work, where I use the Audio Technica ATH-M50. I mainly listen to electronic (not necessarily dance music, mostly stuff like Björk and that kind of artists) and pop music. Between the Hifiman, iBasso and the Fiio, which one would you recommend for the M50 and this kind of music?
    I am also looking for a home headphone, up to around $500, that I´ll use with a Matrix mini-i. Any suggestion? By the way, I recently sold my AKG k702 because I found them extremely boring (if that helps)…

    Thanks for your help and congratulations for the hard work!

    Raúl

    • Reply October 26, 2011

      Anonymous

      Hi Raul,
      Thanks! I’m glad you like the site, and I’m sorry about the lack of daily updates. 🙂
      I think the Fiio would have the best midrange for the M-50 and that’s probably the best one to go with. The Ibasso is second in place.
      As for the headphone, the HE-300 is a very good all rounder. http://www.headfonia.com/hifiman-he-300-the-dynamic-driver/

  • Reply November 2, 2011

    Evilniek

    Hi Mike, first i’d like to say that i really like your site, keep those reviews coming. Btw, are you planning on a review of the HRT Headstreamer?

    • Reply November 3, 2011

      Anonymous

      Yes, but maybe it’ll still be a while since I still have other things planned for now.

      • Reply November 3, 2011

        Evilniek

        No hurry, i already own one, was just curious about your opinion :).

        • Reply November 3, 2011

          Anonymous

          Ah, you should write a short review for us. 🙂

  • Reply November 4, 2011

    GenericMav

    hi Mike, i got a question to ask. i have a ATH-AD300 headphone and Fiio E6 amp, how do you think this would pair with HM 101? 

    • Reply November 4, 2011

      Anonymous

      Hi GenericMav,
      I think it’ll be a good pairing.

  • Reply November 5, 2011

    Marc Flore

    I’m a bit new to this. I’m looking to the improve the sound of both my work laptop, which has a lot of annoying hiss (I suspect the dock or power supply), and my Zune. It seems that for the Zune, I don’t need a DAC, but I do for the laptop, is that right? I use 2 headphones primarily, Grado SR-60 on the laptop and Etymotic ER6 on the Zune. I have looked at some of the other units mentioned on this site (e.g. Fiio E10, iBasso D-Zero), but they are a little pricier. Are they worth the extra cost? Keep in mind I have a decent ear but I’m no audiophile.

    • Reply November 5, 2011

      Anonymous

      Hi Marc,
      Maybe for starters I would just start with the E10 or the D-Zero. Besides they make better and cheaper DACs every year, so it’s also safer from an investment standpoint.

  • Reply November 19, 2011

    Steve

    Mike;

    I was wondering if you were going to listen to the HiFiMan EF-2A.  It is their tube driven DAC/amp (under $200) and it uses the same Burr-Brown 2702.  If you like the soundstage on the HM-101, it would be interesting to hear the soundstage on the EF-2A with tubes.  

    • Reply November 21, 2011

      Anonymous

      Hi Steve,
      Is this an update on the Hifiman EF2?

      • Reply November 23, 2011

        Steve

        I think it is, but truthfully, I’m not sure what was changed.  I have read good things about the EF5 amp and some of their headphones and other products, so I guess I was wondering about your impression of the EF2A as a desktop amp/DAC (or the EF2 for that matter).  Again, it uses the same DAC chip as the HM-101 which you thought had a good soundstage and analog feel  to it.  That sounds like it could be an interesting mix if coupled with tubes as well.

        I couldn’t find on the site if you had ever reviewed one before. 

        • Reply November 23, 2011

          Anonymous

          Yes, thanks Steve. I probably should check out the EF2A then. Can’t say anything about it at the moment.

  • Reply November 22, 2011

    Biergourmet

    Here is a nice story about PCM2702 development: http://www.eetimes.com/design/audio-design/4009467/The-D-A-diaries-A-personal-memoir-of-engineering-heartache-and-triumph

    IMHO it doesn’t read like designed for low quality devices 😉

    • Reply November 25, 2011

      Mike

      Thanks for posting! I saw your post a few days ago but I was working on something else and got distracted. 🙂

      • Reply November 25, 2011

        Biergourmet

        I’m using a Pro-Ject Box USB as source for my headphone amp. I cannot compare to other USB DACs but so far the only problem I have with this unit is that I can hear the noise on the USB 5V rail. Of course only with high volume levels and no music playing. The same noise is on my internal ESI Prodigy HiFi PCI soundcard (connected to my speaker amp), but I never noticed it on my speakers.
        Also the noise is CPU/GPU usage dependend.
        So either I have to live with it or get an DAC with proper power supply. I’ve already tested an USB hub with external switching power supply, but this made it even worse (it had a constant high frequency tone).

        • Reply November 26, 2011

          Mike

          You know a lot of amps, even high end ones would have noise if you max out the volume. But if it doesn’t get through on normal listening levels AND with music playing, I really wouldn’t worry about it.

          • Reply November 26, 2011

            Biergourmet

            A bit of noise is no problem when I hit the pause button. It’s more the annoying sound signature of that noise, e.g. it stops and starts randomly about 3 times in 5 seconds. This makes it much more obvious than a constant noise.

            • Reply November 26, 2011

              Mike

              Shoot that sounds pretty serious then.

              It would be simpler just to try another DAC/Amp unit, even something not too expensive, rather than trying different power supply options.

  • Reply November 25, 2011

    Fabio Rocks

    Hi Mike! I am planning to buy the hd600 as christmas present. Do you think is a good pair with hm 101? Or it’s better to pair with Ibasso d0? I will use it with Macbook air and Bitperfect (thanks to you It’s an awesome program!)

    • Reply November 25, 2011

      Mike

      Hi Fabio,
      I’m afraid that you’ll find the HM-101 to lack punch with the HD600. Either go with the Ibasso or the Fiio.

  • Reply November 28, 2011

    Garysohnxxxxx

    How would the synergy be with the JDS cMoy? Perhaps retaining some of the soundstage/ambience while adding a little bass with the switch.

    • Reply November 28, 2011

      Mike

      Yes, totally right. You’ll get a very good soundstage, and the bass too.

  • Reply December 1, 2011

    Budi Kosanto

    just got this stuff, btw whats the different the line out and the headphone out?
    i still can adjust the volume both way, i though that a line out supposed to have a fixed volume level?

    • Reply December 1, 2011

      Mike

      Budi,
      The line out doesn’t have the driving capability of the headphone out. You should notice that the line out is cleaner and has a lower noise floor, but that bass is very weak on the line out, compared to the headphone out.

      • Reply December 1, 2011

        Budi Kosanto

        i did sense the difference, it just happen that all i know about line out is a fix volume level so i think i was mistaken here.

        • Reply December 1, 2011

          Mike

          Well, since volume control is done on the computer, it would affect the digital signal being sent to the DAC, and so the volume at the line out would follow that as well.

  • Reply January 17, 2012

    Iletec

    does hm-101 have better soundstage depth than hm-601 player? 

  • Reply April 8, 2012

    Przemysław Gast

    I get huge noise from HM-101 and my Macbook Pro Unibody when music is not played and box is near laptop. Same with the receiving call iPhone near the Hifiman. Is it normal ? If not can I fix it ? I use shielded USB cable and the one from package, without changes.

    • Reply April 9, 2012

      Mike

      The noise from the Phone is normal, that happens to a lot of audio devices. The huge noise, I don’t know how huge you’re talking about here, but the HM-101 does have some noise.

      • Reply April 10, 2012

        Przemysław Gast

        Thanks for reply. Let me explain noise:
        The noise happens when the HM-101 is near laptop (especially near rear side of it), also I’ve had noise when quiet and playing sounds when I was sending a lot data via wifi (802.11g). I am using Audirvana Free and DT880 Pro / Koss Porta Pro. Is there a way to shield this box by myself ?

        • Reply April 10, 2012

          Mike

          I’ve never really had a case that extreme. I mean, Wifi interference? I use the HM-101 very close to a wifi router and doesn’t have that problem. I don’t know, it’s not going to be easy to add shielding, since you need a metal box, and you need to hook up the ground on the circuit to the metal box.

  • Reply April 14, 2012

    Prakhar Yadav

    Hey Mike

    Thanks for all the questions of mine youve answered. I’m spending a decent amount getting a large amount of equipment and your advice is really helping me out.

    If I paired this with the ZO would I get a bassy signature with a good soundstage?
    *Crosses Fingers*

    • Reply April 14, 2012

      Mike

      Hmmm… I haven’t really tried that. It may work.

      • Reply April 14, 2012

        Prakhar Yadav

        So if you amp out of a DAC then will the amp muddy the clearer signal or will it just add to the properties of a DAC.
        If I decide to go to a higher level DAC (Like the D-Zero) then will the improvements be apparent (even with MP3 320 kbps music)?

        Thank You

  • Reply November 3, 2012

    Atriya

    Would this pair well with a HE-400?

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